Does Free Will Really Exist?
For centuries, theologians and philosophers have debated one of the most central questions of human existence: whether or not we have free will. The question most commonly asked is: “Are our behaviors and actions predetermined, or do we have complete control over our choices?”
At the end of the 20th century, many believed that neuroscience had settled the age-old question with the conclusion from two German scientists that free will does not exist. However, that research was challenged more recently by American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet who made the case that our brain shows signs of a decision before we act. Not only that, but the wheel’s in our brains start turning before we even consciously intend to do something.
At the time of his death in 2007, Libet had as many critics as he did defenders. This resulted in even more scientists and other curious humans joining in on the debate, all wanting to determine if our choices are genuinely free from influences beyond us. In the decades since Libet’s experiment, his finding has been replicated in various studies using more modern technology such as fMRI.
The evasive answer is nevertheless foundational to our moral principles, criminal justice system, religions, and even the very meaning of life itself. If every life event is merely the predictable outcome of mechanical laws, we may question the point of living.
Many examples seem to support the idea that our decisions and actions might depend on external influences beyond our awareness. Other counter-opinions insist on our complete independence from such powers, leaving us with total responsibility for free will over our actions.
These differences in belief lead to many questions such as:
- Which opinion then holds true about the existence of free will?
- Are we consciously aware of the factors influencing our choices?
- What are the implications of believing or not believing in free will?
This article (based on my Passion Struck Podcast episode) addresses these and other related questions related to the concept of free will. We must carefully consider these notions and clearly understand their reality for us. Doing so will enable us to tackle the issues concerned with our behavior — and that of others — more effectively.
Let us now delve deep into this concept of free will, beginning with the true story of a man named Kenneth Parks, that will leave you wondering just how susceptible we are to influences beyond us.
The curious case of Kenneth Parks
Kenneth (Ken) Parks was a gentle, easy-going young man with no history of violence or crime. He had a wife and a five-month-old daughter he loved very much and tried to be the best he could to support them. However, after he lost his job, he became addicted to gambling and began to face serious financial difficulties, which further led to problems in his marriage. To get help, he decided to discuss his issues with his in-laws, whom he respected and got along with well.
In the early hours of May 24, 1987 — the day Kenneth had planned for the visit — something very strange happened. That morning before dawn, Parks got up from bed and drove twelve miles from Pickering, Ontario, to his in-laws’ home in Scarborough, Ontario. He accessed their house with a key they had previously given him and bludgeoned his mother-in-law to death. He then turned on his father-in-law, stabbing him and attempting to strangle him to death.
After the failed attempt, he got back in his car and, with blood stains all over him, drove to the nearest police station, and said to one of the officers he met there: “I think I have just killed two people.”
He had no memory of what had happened!
The police placed Ken into custody, and the preparation for his trial began. His lawyer, Marlys Edwardh, was baffled by the question of what could have gone wrong with his brain, seeing that he had no motive whatsoever behind the murder. In search of answers to this mystery, she assembled a team of professionals, including medical, mental health, and neurological experts, who probed deep into the mystery. They soon began to suspect Kenneth’s sleep issues contributed to the gruesome event.
While Kenneth was in prison, his lawyer called in neurologist and sleep expert Roger Broughton, who measured Parks’ EEG signals while he slept at night. The expert found the recorded output consistent with that of a sleepwalker. The team found sleep disorders throughout Ken’s extended family after further investigation.
At trial, his legal team presented the sleep results and family history. After thoroughly examining the evidence, the court determined that Ken wasn’t conscious of his actions when he carried them out and couldn’t be held responsible for them. He was determined to suffer from Somnambulism, where the person loses their senses of vision, sight, and smell. They cannot form memories while asleep.
He was found not guilty of homicide and was released. The decision was later reviewed and upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada.
This interesting case shows how our behavior, rather than being predetermined, is primarily random for reasons over which we have no control. It also demonstrates that consciousness’s precise role in decision-making remains unclear.
Let’s use this example to explore further consciousness, determinism, predeterminism, biological and environmental influences, and their impact on our free will.
Consciousness’s role in the existence of free will
Consciousness is an alert state in which you are aware of yourself and your situation. Consciousness plays a central role in cultural conceptions of free will. When conscious conditions compel behavior, people tend to believe that the person acted freely. However, when unconscious states cause behavior, it is commonly thought that the person did not act of their own free will.
The latter view implies that it is possible to be in states of unconsciousness due to negligence or factors beyond your control, like in the case of Kenneth Parks.
If you take a moment to think about past situations when you had to make a decision, you would probably recall one or more times when you felt an intuition that a particular choice was the right one to make. Now, this feeling is not based on logic or conscious reason but simply a feeling. In explaining what prompted their decisions, you will hear people say, “Something told me to do it,” or “I just felt it was the right thing to do.”
Could a factor beyond logical explanation have influenced your choice in such cases?
Indeed, there is constant subconscious mental work ongoing silently below our level of awareness. According to neurophysiologist Susan Pockett, “consciousness is not the real cause of much of what is generally considered voluntary behavior. Many voluntary actions are initiated pre-consciously, with consciousness kept informed only after the neural events leading to the act have begun.”
How determinism and predeterminism impact free will
First, determinism is not the view that free actions are impossible but rather that at any given point in time, only one future is physically possible. In other words, previously existing causes entirely determine the future, often called causal determinism, where every event is influenced by precursor events and conditions along with the laws of nature. In physics, this is commonly known as cause-and-effect (in which the cause is partially accountable for the effect, and the effect is partially dependent on the cause.)
According to determinism, people can’t choose or take any other action in a circumstance when they take a particular action or decision. In other words, the behavior is influenced by internal (biological) and external (environmental) natural influences independent of the individual. Therefore there is no possibility of choice.
Determinism is often confused with predeterminism which is the philosophy that all historical events, past, present, and future, have been already decided or are already known by some powerful force beyond us (God, fate, or some other power). When it comes to predeterminism, the chain of circumstances is pre-established, and human actions cannot interfere with the outputs of this pre-established chain.
Then there is fatalism, the belief that you are powerless to do anything other than the specific outcome that will happen to you no matter what you do. This implies that nothing that we try, think, or decide has any causal effect or relevance as to what we actually end up doing. I.E., you are fated to be obese whether or not you exercise or eat differently.
This might be the evidence and theories to convince you that free will does not exist, but before you believe it doesn’t exist, you need to realize the implication of such belief.
When people quit thinking of themselves as having free will, they don’t seem to see themselves as responsible for their conduct. They also don’t give themselves or others credit for a job well-done since people believe it would be done anyway. As a result, they are more inclined to behave irresponsibly and succumb to their basic instincts.
According to psychologist and behavioral economist Kathleen Vohs, “Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.”
How biological and environmental influences affect free will
Now that I have explored consciousness, determinism, predeterminism, and fatalism, I think it’s important to examine the uncontrollable factors that might actually be influencing your behaviors is essential. These factors fall under two practical categories, namely, biological influences and environmental influences.
In a previous episode on Why your brain dictates your reality, I told the story of Phineas Gage, a responsible and diligent construction foreman. After suffering damage to a portion of his brain after an accident at work, he began to exhibit profound adverse effects on his behavior. But Phineas Gage isn’t alone in the case of people’s biological makeup or changes directly affecting their behaviors.
Take, for another example, the case of a 40-year-old school teacher known to be very decent, kind, and loving. He suddenly developed strong sexual urges toward children and made sexual advances toward his prepubescent daughter. An MRI later revealed that this man had a brain tumor. Once the tumor was removed, he returned to his old decent self and had no inclination towards the earlier displayed pedophilic behavior.
Another is the case of the murderer Charles Whitman who, on August 1, 1966, killed his wife and mother and went on to randomly shoot people at the University of Texas, killing fourteen and wounding thirty-one, before he was shot killed by the police. Upon investigation after his death, it was discovered that he had left what amounted to a suicide note, expressing his concerns at developing his unusual and irrational thoughts and his wish for his body to be physically examined after his death.
Whitman’s request was granted, and the autopsy report revealed that he had a small brain tumor pressing against the amygdala — which is involved in fear and aggression. It was believed that this small amount of pressure on the amygdala could have contributed to Whitman’s inability to control his emotions and actions, thereby leading him to act violently as he did.
You might consider these examples extreme, so let us examine the effects of drugs and alcohol. When a person is under the influence of either or both of these substances, they may behave in irrational and often harmful manners. However, after the effects of the drug or alcohol have ceased, they may have little to no memory of what they had done under the influence of the substances. Could it then be possible that we have some covert biochemical interactions in our brains that could cause us to act in specific ways?
One more aspect of biological influences is genetics and hormones, which we cannot control. Research in behavioral genetics has shown that almost all behaviors are significantly influenced by genetics and that this influence increases as people mature. For example, it has been observed that high levels of testosterone can cause an increased level of aggression, and low serotonin may cause depression and anxiety. It is with this understanding that pharmaceutical scientists have created psychiatric medications that have the power to alter our moods.
After considering these cases of the direct effect of biological changes on behavior, it is naïve to think we are in total control of our behaviors at every given point in time.
The environment where a person lives or is born and brought up has a direct psychological influence on their behavior. By ‘environment,’ I am referring to their culture, communities, and families.
A child raised in a home with love and care will definitely have higher tendencies to show the same to others, while one raised in a violent home will likewise be more predisposed to exhibiting violence. Interestingly, the earlier mentioned mass murderer Charles Whitman grew up in a home marred by domestic violence, where his father physically abused him, his siblings, and their mother.
Being a community member or a particular culture will also influence your beliefs and decision-making, as you will participate in activities together and therefore develop similar mindsets. In such cases, there is a high tendency that your choices will reflect the mentality of other members of your culture or community. As the popular saying goes: “show me your friend, and I will tell you who you are.”
Environmental influences are, however, much easier to deal with and gain freedom from than biological ones because, as humans, we can learn and unlearn things. I delved deep into this in a previous episode on How Your Environment Influences Who You Become.
How free will influences our daily choices
Ultimately, the fundamental question of whether free will exists or not simply depends on your belief. If you want to reject its existence, you should do so responsibly and not make it an excuse to live carelessly. However, remember that your belief can have a more marked impact on your life than you realize.
Belief in free will allows us to take full responsibility for our actions and behaviors. It makes us more intentional about our growth and strengthens our resolve to become better people, knowing it is up to us. A topic I dove deeply into during my interview earlier this week with Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman and Dr. Jordan Feingold regarding their new book “Choose Growth.”
Therefore, it may not come as a surprise that certain studies have indicated that individuals who believe in free will are more likely to experience favorable life outcomes, such as happiness, academic success, and improved job performance.
One thing is sure; we have choices to make and the freedom to make them. Our actions have consequences, and to the degree that we are conscious of this, we will be able to make beneficial ones.
Renowned psychiatrist, philosopher, and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
I ask you today, what will you do with that space?
The aim of highlighting all these points is to help you realize that you are certainly influenced by the world you are a part of and that exercising control over your behaviors is much more complicated than you may have thought.
Let’s examine quotes from four great historical scholars just to illustrate their differing views on the existence of a free will.
Stephen Hawking said, “I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”
Albert Einstein said, “Human beings, in their thinking, feeling and acting, are not free agents but are as causally bound as the stars in their motion.”
William James said, “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Free will without fate is no more conceivable than spirit without matter, good without evil.”
As these quotes illustrate, the ongoing debate about the existence of free will undoubtedly continue for years, decades, and possibly centuries to come.
Perhaps the nonexistence of free will is a logical extension of the primary assumptions of our materialist model. In such cases, self-introspection is an illusion, and consciousness is reducible to neurological activity.
On the other hand, maybe when we are influenced by the factors in the world, it doesn’t mean we are determined by them. Is it plausible that free will is not an illusion but a priceless human attribute? This knowledge should spur us to consciously make intentional choices to exercise control over our actions.
Conceivably if the people who have acted based on influences beyond them had been more conscious of their conditions and had been more intentional, some of their harmful actions could have been avoided.
I will leave you with this last thought. If your life is like a game of poker, the hand you are dealt is determinism. However, how you play that hand is free will.
This article is based on an episode of Passion Struck with John R. Miles. Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, or your favorite podcast platform.
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